"I met this guy at the grocery store. He had a bumper sticker, ‘Thrill of it All Christian Fellowship’.
"He tells me, 'We’re booming, man! 8,000 members and growing like crazy!'
"I say, 'Really? What are you guys doing wrong?...the message of the Cross has never been that popular.'"He's right. Jesus' words, "Take up your cross and follow Me," have rarely raked people in. Most people don't really want to have much to do with crosses.
But Jesus says that if we're going to follow Him and have life with God, we must submit to the cross of acknowledging our sin, our mortality, and our need of Him and what He has accomplished for us on the cross.
The Christian disciple is called to the death of self.
That's the way to liberation from sin and death, to life with God that nothing can destroy.
So, the apostle Paul, hardly a success in the eyes of the world, wrote: "...we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Corinthians 12:23-24)
Generally speaking, the churches that are more "successful" at making disciples are the ones who approach that commission from Christ with intentionality, deliberation, and love. They may not have huge footprints in their communities; but they have an enormous imprint on the lives of those who come to know and follow Christ because of them.
Of course, there are exceptional instances of authentic growth in churches. Three-thousand were baptized on the first Pentecost after Jesus' ascension (Acts 2:41).
But it's also true that some "churches" are huge in numbers because they proclaim a hugely mistaken version of the gospel. A gospel without a cross or Christ is no gospel. A church without cross and Christ is no church.
Now, I know of some big churches that are also big in proclaiming Christ and His cross. God's Holy Spirit can make that happen. But I know a lot more big churches where there needs to be more focus on Christ and the cross.
The Augsburg Confession says that the Church exists wherever the gospel is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion) are rightly administered. If a church is wildly popular, there's a good chance it's not a faithful church. I'm just sayin'.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. For those who are interested, we average 170 people in worship on Sunday mornings. We're doing our best to be successful at being faithful, whatever our numbers.]